A Juneteenth Celebration of Black Women in the Labor Movement
By India Heckstall
On June 19, 1865, enslaved Africans and African Americans in Galveston, Texas, formally learned of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that legally ended slavery. Juneteenth, a blending of the words June and nineteenth, has often been overlooked by non-Black Americans and excluded from history books. However, the Black Lives Matter movement generated momentum to recognize the occasion. On June 17, 2021, — 156 years later — the U.S. federal government officially recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
Despite certifying Juneteenth as a federal holiday, Black Americans are continuously mistreated and harmed by white supremacy — Black Americans were more likely to be employed in essential jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic; twice as likely to be unemployed; and more likely to be living in poverty. America still has a long way to go to address institutional and racial barriers, but Black Americans will continue to fight for justice. On this Juneteenth, we highlight three Black women leaders of the labor movement who fought for social justice in the workplace.
Black women have always led the fight for social justice.
For centuries, Black women have steadily fought for civil rights in America. Black women led the Underground Railroad, were leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, organized freedom riders, fought for constitutional protections to combat sex discrimination, and continuously play a pivotal role in voting rights and voter turnout. Black women leaders in the labor movement exude strength and, perseverance while consistently breaking down barriers.
Rosina Corrothers Tucker
A civil rights and labor activist, Rosina Corrothers Tucker played a pivotal role in creating the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and its International Ladies’ Auxiliary Order. She challenged the limits often imposed on African American women who sought to lead movements for racial and economic justice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Rosina’s experience with the BSCP led her to organize other groups of workers, including women in the laundry trades and domestic service industries. She was also a leader in the fight to integrate public spaces in Washington, D.C., and advocated for the rights of children and the elderly.
Due to Rosina’s fundraising and organizing efforts, the BSCP became the first African American union recognized by the AFL-CIO.
Sylvia Woods was a Chicago-based union organizer and community activist. She helped organize the Laundry Workers Union and was an active member of Bendex Local 330 of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Sylvia was ultimately elected Financial Secretary-Treasurer of the UAW, despite only 25 percent of the workers being Black and the rest white.
Through her organizing efforts, Sylvia learned that racism is a tool used to divide the working class, and she believed that Black and white workers must unite to fight employers. This ideology guided much of her work organizing unions.
“Black women have always taken the forefront.”
Hattie Canty is considered one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history. In Nevada, she worked several jobs as a housekeeper, school janitor, and room attendant. She was active in the Culinary Workers Union (CWU) and eventually served as union president, the first Black woman and room attendant to serve in this position. As union president, Hattie pushed for racial justice within the hospitality industry and union. She fought for workers to receive living wages and organized a successful 75-day walkout against Vegas casinos so culinary workers could get better health insurance benefits. She also led workers at the Frontier Hotel through a six-and-a-half year strike to negotiate better labor standards at the casinos.
“Anytime I fight for anything in this labor movement, it benefits me in the civil rights movement.”
Policy solutions must prioritize and empower workers.
Black women labor leaders made great strides to advance workers’ right to organize, safe working conditions, and fair wages. However, Black women are still underpaid compared to their white peers and experience occupational segregation that limits their access to high-paying jobs. At the same time, Black workers face heightened backlash and retaliation from employers for raising workplace safety concerns. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop workers from exercising their right to organize.
Now, more than ever, policymakers should consider passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act to provide greater protections for workers. The PRO Act would hold employers accountable for violating workers’ rights by imposing more meaningful fines, strengthening support for workers who experience retaliation from employers for exercising their rights, and preventing employers from interfering in union elections. As these powerful Black women labor leaders recognized, a strong union movement is critical to advance racial and gender justice. Unions have a track record of closing the racial wealth divide and combating workplace discrimination on behalf of workers of color and women. Black women will continue to lead and inspire organizing efforts until the labor market is rooted in racial, gender, and economic justice.